This is a guest post by an American artist who has an interest in nonwestern art but prefers to remain anonymous. I asked him to share some of his work with us.
‘He will crush [the serpent’s] head’
This painting is primarily a visual experiment based on South Asian Hindu art and Tibetan Buddhist thangkas. Jesus is dancing on (crushing) the head of Eden’s serpent (Genesis 3:15), much as Krishna does on the serpent Kaliya.
The body position of Jesus is derived from temple carvings at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, while his face is based on the site’s monumental smiling faces.
In the painting, Jesus holds up the world, which he saves from the power of Satan, who simultaneously pierces his heel. The cross behind them represents the method of Jesus’ victory, while the cloud represents God the Father. The flowers in the background represent blessings falling from heaven.
Jesus’ right hand is positioned loosely in the Bhumi-sparsha mudra (“gesture of touching the earth”). This mudra was used by Siddhartha Gautama to cause the earth to bear witness to his achievement of enlightenment. Here I am using it to symbolize the earth’s witness to Jesus’ lordship over heaven and earth.
‘God has raised this Jesus to life’
(Click on the images to view at a larger size.)
This painting is an ancient-Mayan-style image of the resurrected Jesus dancing out of his tomb. I created the image in response to a seventh-century carving I came across in my studies (shown above); found on a Mayan king’s sarcophagus lid, the carving depicts the king falling (literally) into the jaws of the underworld at the moment of death. I wanted to create a response that shows the love and hope offered in Christ’s resurrection and triumph over death. In my painting, Jesus is reaching up to God the Father, who is calling him out of the tomb from his throne in heaven.
The ancient Maya believed that at the time of death, the soul entered a multilevel underworld known as Xibalba. There the soul would be tested by the Gods of Death, reenacting a confrontation originally fought by two mythical Hero Twins. Through their victory over death, these twins were able to resurrect their deceased father, the Maize God, from an opening in the earth. Mayan kings would reenact this triumphant story by performing a dance that represented the emergence of the resurrected Maize God out of the underworld. I have based this image of Jesus on a similar dance performance as the literal God-Man who died, and by so doing defeated the true god of death, Satan. Afterwards, he returned to the land of the living in a dance of triumphant joy (Hebrews 12:2).
In ancient Mayan culture the color blue symbolized the waters of Xibalba, and therefore death itself; I used this color for the inside of the tomb. As he dances, Jesus holds a flint knife in his right hand. This is a reference to the Hero Twins who, while being tested by the Gods of Death, defeated them by decapitation with a flint knife.
The corn stalks on each side represent resurrection (by association with the Maize God), though the Mayan concept is somewhat different from the Christian meaning. Two angels stand on top of each stalk supporting the cloud/glory that surrounds God the Father on his heavenly throne.
God the Father is surrounded by a sky band, which represents the ecliptic, i.e., the path of the sun, moon, and planets through the heavens against the background of stars. His headdress is made of green quetzal bird feathers. Mesoamerican rulers wore headdresses made from quetzal feathers, symbolically connecting them to Quetzalcoatl, the creator god and god of wind. In this painting, I would say they represent the Holy Spirit. God the Father wears a chest emblem which has the glyph for “Father.” The glyphs to his right read, “He creates/Sky (Heaven)/(and) Earth.”
Here’s a translation of the remaining glyphs:
- Top Row: Resplendent/Sun/Precious
- 2nd Row: He was seated/in holy lordship/God-Man Who Descends From the Sky/Holy Lord/child of/Heavenly Father/Holy Lord/[is] His Holy Name
- 3rd Row: He was buried/and then it happened/emerged from/tomb/God-Man Who Descends From the Sky/Holy Lord/Death/His sacrifice
- Bottom Row: Darkness/Moon/Darkness
Regarding the idea of using contextualized ancient art forms with modern Mayans, a missionary who has lived in Guatemala for 30 years commented,
There seems to be a disconnect between ancient art and the twentieth-first-century Mayan. If Mayans of fifteen centuries ago saw your portrayals, they might have made some sense of it. By analogy, most British moderns, if taken to Stonehenge, would not relate to it. They’d need a specialist explain to them what they were seeing.
So, this painting would probably not make an impact on most contemporary Maya, or be embraced by Mayan evangelicals. But nevertheless, it has been for me a good theoretical exercise in visual contextualization. In a real-life missions context, however, any type of contextualized art form would require multiple reviews by locals (both believers and nonbelievers) before being used in a wider context.